A Plant-Based Food Scene Grows in Belgium

June 22, 2016

Paris, March 2016: despite the six hour time difference, I can’t shake the feeling that I’m not too far from home. It’s not that the boulevards aren’t sufficiently dappled in dove grey light, or that the building facades somehow lack their Haussmanian allure—it’s the food.

With the Dorothee Meilichzon-designed Café Pinson and Tatiana Lebotti’s Le Stand making vegetarian waves in the Brooklyn-ified Marais, it seems the SoCal cool of juiceries and gluten-freedom has rubbed off where I least expect to find it: French cuisine.

Pale stained glass against a white wall in Antwerp's Native Bistro, where waste-free extends from the menu to the design. Photo by Sean Santiago

But Paris isn’t the only European capital undergoing a health food renaissance. Berlin bio-bistro Daluma is currently enjoying its second year of success; Milan boasts several Juicebar locations for the itinerant raw food devotee; even Ikea is serving vegan meatballs. (Ikea is the capital of Sweden, right?)

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But my new favorite plant-driven find is an under-the-radar player in an unexpected spot: Antwerp, Belgium’s Native.

Plants, dried alongside green ones, keep the antiques lively. Photo by Sean Santiago

While the city’s culinary pedigree might not be the first thing that comes to mind—more likely its dynamic fashion scene, having born a spate of incredibly influential designers in the 80s known as the Antwerp Six—we’re willing to bet that the city’s chefs could be the next creative class due for a reckoning.

No one makes this case better than Benjamin Somers, the handsome, soft-spoken chef behind Native, the city’s first vegetable-forward restaurant. The decor of the place, in keeping, is entirely reclaimed.

A reclaimed, windowed door frame standing in as a room divider. Photo by Sean Santiago

A former graphic design student, Somers began his career working in kitchens on the weekend while still in school, eventually working his way up to a four-year stint as a chef at local mainstay De Kleine Zavel. Environmentalism quickly took root in the young chef.

I wasn’t very happy with the way people treated food—the amount of food they bought and didn’t use, [the amount] that ended up in the garbage. I wanted to make a change for myself. I didn’t want to waste anything anymore. I wanted to go back to the basics and work mainly with vegetables in an organic way, with local farmers, and make as much as possible ourselves.

No shelves in your windows? Hang some using manila rope. Photo by Sean Santiago

On the menu you’ll find staples like gluten-free and vegan seasonal vegetable quiche as well as the caramelized pumpkin and goat cheese salad, a perennial favorite. (“We took it away for a week and people started complaining.”)

When asked if the rest of the city has picked up on his eco-conscious wavelength, Somers laments that Antwerp lags behind its counterparts at home and abroad—Ghent, Amsterdam, Paris. But he’s hopeful about change. “I’m not trying to educate people. I’m just letting them know that there’s another way of eating.”

On the menu at Native. Photo by Sean Santiago

Somers isn’t alone in his mission, though other restaurateurs might be hesitant to declare it as such. Dynamic eatery Coffeelabs makes no bold moral statements, but offers a vegetable-friendly menu that caters to anyone with an affinity for summer squashes, sweet potatoes, and quinoa—not to mention fresh juices for the caffeine-averse.

It’s an Instagram-friendly bounty echoed in the menus at nearby Roest and equally delicious (and meat-friendly) Brel. And, of course, what's a health food craze without avocado toast, served in style at the café-cum-gallery and shop St. Vincents.

Photo by Sean Santiago

While Antwerp has no shortage of bread, butter, and cured meats to sate the appetite of American tourists who view Europe as the States’ indulgent older sister, this new crop of eateries suggests a more vegetable-driven way of eating has universal appeal—and roots on both sides of the ocean.

Have you been to Belgium recently? Where did you eat? Share your best travel tips in the comments.

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Sean is a Brooklyn-based writer, photographer and kale apologist who advocates for drinking at lunch. An avid traveler, he is always on the hunt for good coffee and better bread.